Arts Devo

While Arts DEVO is away, Ken Smith takes us to the South Pacific

Ken Smith

Ken Smith

Kia orana! That phrase (pronounced kee-ya or-rana) is the ubiquitous greeting on the remote South Pacific island of Rarotonga. It’s written above the arrival gate at the airport and springs easily from the lips of most everyone you meet in the Cook Islands, a collection of 15 tiny specks of sand and jungle spread across a span of ocean the size of Western Europe. Rarotonga is the largest and most populated.

Swimming with the wild dogs of Rarotonga.

Rarotonga has been on my mind the last few weeks, while watching Arts DEVO prepare for his and Mrs. DEVO’s big European adventure and making my own, decidedly less epic summer travel plans—to Milburn, Utah. A year ago today, I was sitting on the porch of our rented bungalow with my new wife, Kate, sipping rum and pineapple soda and looking over a white sand beach and a sapphire blue lagoon, listening to the sound of waves crashing against the coral reef a half-mile out. It was halfway through our two-week honeymoon.

After a decade of courtship and cohabitation, we decided to go big for our post-nuptial adventure. We deliberated possible destinations for weeks, but the run-up to the wedding left us with little enthusiasm for packed itineraries and hordes of tourists. When someone suggested looking at Costco’s travel packages, we laughed about buying our honeymoon at the same place we buy bulk toilet paper, but checked it out anyway. In the time it takes to say, “Where the hell is Rarotonga?” our trip was booked.

Sea god Tangaroa … just hanging out.

It was the most ridiculous—and by far, best—impulse buy ever. Visiting Rarotonga is often compared to visiting better-known Polynesian destinations 50 years ago. Businesses are mostly small and locally owned, and there’s not a Starbucks or McDonald’s in—literally—thousands of miles. An attempt by foreign developers to build a hoity-toity Sheraton resort in the 1990s was abandoned after the place was 90 percent built, allegedly due in part to a curse by a local holy man. The ruins are still there—we explored them—slowly being reclaimed by jungle. There are few Americans, with most tourists coming from New Zealand, of which the Cooks are a self-governing protectorate.

I could write a novel—or at least a lengthy travelogue—about all the amazing things we saw, people we met, food we ate and epiphanies we experienced on the island, and will happily do so if someone wants to pay for me to return and do more research. We shopped for hand-made ukuleles at a prison, ate lots of ika mata (raw fish and coconut salad) and frolicked with the friendliest wild dogs on Earth. We visited 160-year-old churches—where our agnostic hearts were moved to tears by choral hymns sung in Maori—and 1,000-year old marae (stone circles where Rarotongans used to sacrifice and eat people, and still hold less morbid traditional ceremonies). We sipped mai tais from Mason jars and chased the sunset farther west than we’d ever dreamed. After the sun fell, the stars—uninhibited by light pollution—shone more brightly than we’d ever seen. We spent our last night on the beach, awestruck by the sight of the Southern Cross hanging high above unfamiliar stars and the Milky Way pouring into the South Pacific.

Here’s to new horizons, and happy anniversary, Kate.